ETHICS AND TECHNOLOGICAL RESPONSIBILITY

Technology often begins with a near-term, and often shortsighted response to a human need or want, and while it addresses the immediate need, often causes long-term consequences that are deleterious. This is most evident in the state of the environment, and in the rise of chronic diseases such as cancer, and reproductive and immune dysfunction. In a book on ethics of technology, philosopher Hans Jonas states:

"Modern technology, informed by an ever deeper penetration of nature and propelled by the forces of market and politics, has enhanced human power beyond anything known or even dreamed of before. It is a power over matter, over life on earth, and over man himself; and it keeps growing at an accelerating pace. Its unfettered exercise for about two centuries has raised the material estate of its wielders and main beneficiaries, the industrial 'West,' to heights equally unknown in the history of mankind....But lately, the other side of the triumphal advance has begun to show its face, disturbing the euphoria of success with threats that are as novel as its welcomed fruits...the peaceful and constructive use of worldwide technological power, a use in which all of us are collaborators as captive beneficiaries through rising production, consumption and sheer population growth - that poses threats much harder to counter. The net total of these threats is the overtaxing of nature, environmental and (perhaps) human as well. Thresholds may be reached in one direction or another, points of no return, where processes initiated by us will run away from us on their own momentum - and toward disaster." (page ix)

Table X shows examples of past problems, technological "solutions," and the long term consequences from continued practice of that technology.

Problem / Need Technology as Solution Consequences

Food preservation, temperature control: nontoxic, nonflammable refrigerant

Chlorofluorocarbons
Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
Destruction of crops, illness due to "pests": agent to kill insects Synthetic insecticides Adverse effects on birds and mammals
Energy for consumer and industry use: cheap and readily available source Wood, coal Deforestation, global climate change
Increased food supply: agent to aid crop growth Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers Lake eutrophication
Table X: Examples of human needs and wants, responsive technology, and long-term impacts (modified from: Graedel, T. and B.R. Allenby, Industrial Ecology, Prentice-Hall, 1995. Page 9)

 

As we understand the complex human need/want - industry - impact systems and cycles, we need to predict and avoid the consequences by wiser design and use of technology. The most eloquent voice that spoke about the effects of pesticides, one that was heard around the worlds, and mobilized the environmental conscience of the United States was that of Rachel Carson, a young biologist and a Pittsburgh native. In 1962, based on her observation as a marine biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book that became a classic and started the environmental movement. When excerpts of the book first appeared as articles in the New Yorker, major chemical campanies tried to suppress Rachel Carson's voice as mere hysteria. Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring "To Albert Schweitzer who said: "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end by destroying the earth."

Hans Jonas develops his ethics of technological responsibility along five tenets (pp. ix, x):

  1. The altered, always enlarged nature of human action, with the magnitude and novelty of its works and their impact on man's global future," raises new moral issues. A new reflection on ethical principles is required.
  2. The lengthened reach of our deeds moves responsibility into the center of the ethical stage...responsibility is a correlate of power." Therefore our responsibility must be proportional to the scope of the power of technology. This means that "we need lengthened foresight, that is, a scientific futurology."
  3. Even the best predictions will fall short. Consequently, we must apply a "heuristic of fear, replacing former predictions of hope" which must "tell us what is possibly at stake and what we must beware of."
  4. "What we must avoid at all costs is determined by what we must avoid at all costs." As religion that gave us the foundations for this thought is "in eclipse" today, a philosophy of nature is to serve as a guide to our "environmental morality."
  5. This thinking has to lead us to steps to limit technology to "ensure the survival and humanity of man."

These tenets are useful as yardsticks for thinking about and evaluating technologies, especially before their widespread use.

 

 

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